StatsCan recently published a survey of about 46,000 Canadians where they were asked about the state of their mental health. Almost a quarter of respondents reported fair or poor mental health. Over half of participants reported that their mental health had worsened since the onset of physical distancing, and almost 88% said that they had at least one symptom of anxiety.
Seven months into the pandemic and the resilience and determination that marked the attitude and approach of most business owners has started to erode. Business leaders are feeling exhausted and asking how much longer can they continue to pivot, reinvent, restructure, and recover.
That same mental health toll is affecting employees as well. Many have been sent home to work and are adjusting to balancing family and work in whole new ways. Others are operating with a host of new protective measures that are unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable.
With all of this, the expectation is still to run successful businesses. The priorities are clear. First, is to continue to exist, second is to weather the storm, and third is to continue to grow. For many, the challenge has never been greater.
A Pathway to Organizational Mental Health
To help you chart a course in your business when it comes to the mental health of your team, we have invited Nazim Ahmed, CEO of Creative Layer, to join us and to share the approach they’re taking in the company. Naz isn’t your typical entrepreneur. His background is in molecular genetics and software engineering. While working for a large biotech company, he undertook an experiment where they would take a sample of DNA, bring it to a lab, and extract it, sequence it, and turn it into personalized pieces of abstract art.
Naz is the first person who would tell you that they never thought it would be a real business, but it turned into a million dollar a year business. That business went on to sell in the Museum of Modern Art and get lots of press. When the iPhone launched and its growth exploded, they saw another opportunity to allow people to upload their mobile photos and turn them into custom artwork, and CanvasPop.com was born.
Naz’s team then built Creative Layer an end-to-end technology platform that allows creators, entrepreneurs and brands to easily sell personalized products online, which he leads today.
Building a Strong Workforce
Naz and his team have undergone the full range of ups and downs that characterize the experience of so many companies. But several years ago, Naz made a serious commitment to begin making changes to support the strength and resilience of both the business and his team. All signs are that it’s working. The company is growing and hiring, and they just received recognition as one of the city’s best companies based on its employee NPS scores. All this at a time when many organizations are seeing engagement levels fall.
When COVID-19 emerged, Naz and his team started to work from home. While they had great office space and a strong office culture, they knew they had to physically separate. At that time, their focus was on how they could, as Naz put it, “actually use this opportunity to even make our culture that much better. We have a great culture now, but let’s even bring it to another level and it will take that much more focus considering that we’re all remote.”
As they undertook that challenge, the priority was to ensure that engagement levels remain high. While examining how best to do that, they realized that their staff fell into three broad groups:
- Some employees suddenly found themselves with a lot of extra time because they were not commuting to work. They started appreciating and making use of that extra time and loved working from home.
- Another group had very young children at home and they were experiencing more stress from juggling both work and home responsibilities. For them, the focus was on giving them the flexibility they needed to relieve that pressure so they could manage their day in a way that reflected their reality.
- The third group was of younger team members who don’t have children and really appreciated the social aspect of work. To meet their needs, the company responded by increasing the social things that they do remotely. (We provide some examples later in this article.)
When we asked him, Naz told us that the main reason their engagement numbers continued to go up as they went into COVID is because they had spent the previous five years developing a framework and creating a strong culture.
It was a five-year journey for me because I had gone through some difficult times in 2016. We had low morale, we spread ourselves too thinly across different products, and I really had to make changes within the organization. I started creating a framework around all the things that we needed to put in place to create a healthy, strong organization so that if we did hit a storm — like a fierce competitor disrupting our business or something like this, a pandemic — we would be strong enough to be able to handle it. This process started many years ago.
A Framework for Resilience
We asked Naz to explain the framework that he used at Creative Layer to put this model in place. This is what he told us.
Many people are familiar with the famous psychology framework called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It essentially maps out all the things a person needs to feel safe and secure in society. There are physiological needs, safety needs, they need love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization around expression and creativity, and so on. Maslow’s Hierarchy was our inspiration as we created our own Company Hierarchy of Needs — the things that our employees need to feel like they’re in a strong environment where they’re mentally well and where the workplace is a source of motivation rather than a source of stress.
The first layer I identified was a stable financial infrastructure and a really viable business model. The reason I put that on the base is that without that strong financial security as well as a strong business model that you can scale I feel like you’re building a company on shaky ground. I spent a couple of years just focused on those two things and that was an evolution of my business model at the time, as well as a strong focus of financial people around me to create that strength. I feel until you do that, you almost can’t focus on anything else.
The second thing that I started doing was stimulating an environment of innovation. I believe that an innovative environment actually helps with mental health and wellness because people feel like this company is going to have longevity, it’s going to reinvest into the business, and it’s reinvesting into R&D and it’s going to evolve. I think that supports a positive psyche. We started having a lot of offsites focused on defining where our future could go. Those were the beginnings of what would become Creative Layer — it all started with these offsite retreats and that really started stimulating a very healthy environment.
After that, the next level was creating a strong execution strategy, so that people feel secure and confident that whatever plan that we’ve laid out as a result of the innovation talks as well as what we’re trying to achieve over the next couple of years, is going to be executed at a world-class level. We actually brought on BDC and I participated in the Growth Driver Program, which is a two-year program that made sure that our operations were world-class. That created a lot of confidence among our employees and once again, I believe that that affects mental health and wellness because people don’t feel like they’re on some uncontrollable ride. I believe that was a really strong part of what ended up today being a good place for mental health and wellness.
Finally, we had spent a lot of time on mission, vision, and values. I believe that they are a critical component of mental wellness because your employees know that you’re creating something larger than the company itself. They believe that your current situation can evolve into something so much bigger when we’re looking at the mission and vision, so we spent a lot of time on that. Then, of course, living your values. I used to think that all that stuff was not as important, but I realize now how important that was. When I compare where we were in 2016 to today, I can tell you that every single metric across the company is “up and to the right.”
Once I had a stable infrastructure, I had an environment of innovation, I had all the basics, like a strong execution strategy, mission, vision, values, then I started focusing on each employee’s physical environment. We invested in ergonomics because it occurred to me that, “If they’re at their desk every day and they have pain or tendonitis or anything like that, that’s going to physically put them in a stressful environment. Let’s really make sure all of our ergonomic setups are perfect,” so I brought in an ergonomics coach and consultant, checked every single person’s desk, and then invested into equipment to make sure that physically everyone was working and feeling good in the right state.
I started even adding more layers to that piece. I now do health and wellness seminars. Now we’re doing it through Zoom, so every month I have an expert that talks about nutrition, talks about stress control or meditation, and that’s been really successful. Then, once a month, I also do movement sessions, so we’ll do a barre class together on Zoom or we’ll do a Tabata style workout altogether. That’s been great. Also, we’re always looking at our benefits to see if we can increase it and improvement, so that I think shows the employees as well that we’re committed to improving their benefits.
One thing that’s really helped is I have one person whose job is Employee Experience Manager. Her job is literally to look at the employees as customers and look at the employee experience from the second they enter the company to their entire duration within the business. There are all sorts of things that we work on, which are all these layers to improve that customer experience, but it’s her full-time job, so she’s very much a nurturer and I give her budgets and I give her the opportunity to really put in this programs and have my support and the whole leadership team’s support. Also, employees know where to go if they have some issues or they need to talk. All of this, you’re essentially creating a really safe environment, saying, “Hey, we really value you and if you’re going through some issues like you’re dealing with the pandemic or stress at home, we have people that you can go talk to outside of just your direct manager.” That, I think, that investment has been paying off in spades.
Right now we’re bringing a lot of Coaching inside the company so that people can improve on their leadership skills and that, I think, adds to mental health and wellness because people feel like they’re growing.
Specific Initiatives Undertaken by Creative Layer
Employee Feedback and Employee Net Promoter Score
Monthly Wellness and Movement Seminars + Ergonomics Consulting
Remote Social Activities We Have Tried
Evaluation of Remote Office Setup
On a Personal Level
So far we’ve focused on the mental health of the organization but we also wanted to know what Naz was doing on a personal level. He told us, “The most important thing for me is my morning routine and I make sure that I start off my morning the exact same every day. That morning really is the basis for my personal mental health. Then, I can be strong for my employees, my investors, my board, my children, and my wife.” Here’s what his morning routine looks like:
- The first thing I do when I wake up is cardio exercise. I think exercise and mental health and wellness are very interconnected. In the summers, it’s a swim and in the wintertime, it’s a HIT style of workout.
- Then stretch. Now that I’m over 40 now, I stretch for a solid 10 minutes, I stretch out my entire body.
- I do kettlebell workouts just to add some weight resistance.
- More recently I’ve started incorporating meditation for 10 minutes into my day as well.
Where to Start — What to Invest
As Naz tells it, they undertook this work in 2016 and have continued to evolve over time. So we asked him, what advice would he give business owners who are starting today? His answer? “You just need to start.”
I think the key is just to start. It’s like the ‘Good to Great’ analogy where you are pushing a flywheel and it starts off heavy, but picks up momentum over time. I started that reinvention in 2016 and it took a lot of energy to get the culture moving in the right direction. Over time however, the momentum picks up and it comes back in the form of positive business results and satisfied employees. I think the key is to just start.
He told us that simply starting the process and engaging your organization that this will have a positive effect on your team and their morale. It will demonstrate that leadership knows this needs to address this and that they’re starting to take action. But there also needs to be a commitment to the long-term. This isn’t about short-term fixes, it takes time.
We also asked Naz what kind of investment leaders need to be prepared to make. He encouraged leaders to do something to get started and that the budget amount is not as important as the commitment, particularly in the short-term. “I don’t think you have to overdo it. I think you just have to understand where you are and how much you can afford [to invest] in a responsible manner.”